Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Twenty Mule Team Powdered Cleanser

My lovely wife and I recently went on a rather quick, 450 mile road trip from our locale here in the Northern Sierra Nevada Foothills down the back spine of California on Hwy 395.  Final destination: Dante's View, in Death Valley, CA.

You see, one of my cousins left this earthly dimension quite unexpectedly last summer.  Yeah, he went to the hospital with abdominal pain and was gone within a week.  Poof.

I guess he won't be coming to our house for dinner anymore.

He was assaulted by a very aggressive form of pancreatic cancer, leaving his family and many friends more than just a little surrealistically bewildered.  This was a very funny, intelligent and caring man, he was cherished and is missed by many.  His memorial was last October in Oakland, CA, and one of his last wishes was to have his ashes scattered at Dante's View.  Dante's View is at the peak of the Black Mountains and it is considered one of the great photographic and scenic locations in Death Valley.  It was a place he knew and loved, a place with incredible, sweeping views in all directions.

Although quite bitter sweet, it was great to see that side of the family again.  I hadn't seen his widow in several years.  I hadn't seen his three children in several decades, they live out in Michigan and Minnesota.  And I met his grandchildren; young, intelligent, and aspiring.  His influence can be felt and seen within the subsequent generations.  Yeah, his spirit lives on.

It was good to see his brother and sister (and spouses), my only two remaining blood cousins.  Hadn't seen them for about four years.  Ahem.  They only live about forty miles from here, and we had to hook in the middle of the desert, over 450 miles away?  What the?  We all made a pact to see each other more often.  Period.

As to his children, I discovered I must enlighten them as to part of their Norwegian heritage, Lefsa.  It was one of my cousin's favorite edible treats and a family tradition that is definitely necessary to pass along to his kids.

It was a good occasion, we sent him off with love and peace.  I knew it would be good that morning when I woke up and watched the moon set over Mt. Whitney from our motel window.  It was an awesome wink good-bye.

Those are the neon lights of the Dow Villa Motel, in Lone Pine, CA, in the foreground.

The little town of Lone Pine is the gateway to both Mt. Whitney-the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States at 14,497 feet-and Death Valley National Park, with the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere at 282 feet below sea level.  I bet that valley would fill up really fast if a tsunami the size of, say, Milwaukee hit the California coast and pushed inward.  Now that I think about it, the tsunami would probably have to be taller than Milwaukee for this event to happen.  How tall is Milwaukee, anyway? 

Lone Pine is also home to the Alabama Hills, whose unique granite boulders and rock formations have been a backdrop for many Hollywood movies, "standing in" for locations all over the world.

I read on Trip Advisor a number of old actors had stayed at the Dow Villa, so I had an idea a few movies had been filmed around there.  The Dow Villa was built by some guy named Dow back in the 1920's when he noticed a lot of Hollywood was coming to the area.  Scouts, agents, then casts and crews.  Dow built the first accommodations in Lone Pine to serve the burgeoning clientele and industry.

Folks like John Wayne, Roy Rogers, Gene Autrey, Humphrey Bogart and Clint Eastwood have graced the old hotels halls.  At least that's what I read.  We didn't make any reservations though since I wanted to leave our final destination open.  When we arrived in town we drove by the Dow, which looked nice enough, but then we proceeded south to check out all the remaining one motel.

On the way we noticed a film museum and thought it would be great to visit, but we figured there wasn't enough time.  We drove another mile south to the junction with Hwy 136, the route we'd be taking the next morning.  Then we returned, stopping at the very clean cut looking Best Western Lone Pine.  Since there were only a few vehicles in the parking lot, and since it was only 4:00 PM, we figured the "No vacancy" sign in the office window was wrong.  We politely waited while the only person behind the counter talked on the phone for a few minutes.

Kind of like the gal behind the rental car counter who encountered a rather hostile Steve Martin in "Planes, Trains and Automobiles."  Gobble, Gobble.  Only it wasn't Thanksgiving and she was speaking in Spanish.  After she finally got off the phone we discovered there truly was no vacancy.  In English. What the?

We went back to the Dow, quickly, and fortunately we found they had three rooms left.  One in the newer motel and two in the old hotel.  We opted for a room in the expanded motel section rather than stay in the historic hotel because the motel had wifi.  The old hotel did not.  Imagine that.

As we were checking in, we inquired as to "just what the hell was going on in Lone Pine, CA, on March 6th, 2015?"  For crying out loud.

And then we were informed by the desk clerk, as well as the two outdoorsy looking guys that came in after us, that there was a rather famous Trout Derby being held the following day.

OK, so, besides a few movies having been made in the area apparently there were some trout.  Enough trout to sell out all seven of Lone Pine's motels in early March of every year, and enough trout in the area to maintain three very well stocked fishing tackle shops in a town with a population of 2,000.  The Eastern Sierra is, apparently, an angler's fresh water mecca.  It's famous even.  But then you'd have to be a pretty avid angler to know it's famous.  Besides regular type Rainbow and Brook trout, anglers also vie for the coveted Alpers Trout, which won last year's derby with a weight of over 4 1/2 pounds!  For one trout.

What is an Alpers Trout?  Well, first of all, it's NOT a Herb Alpert trout.  It's not going to play any brass musical instruments for you.  So just get that out of your mind.  Basically, an Alpers trout is a hybrid Rainbow, hand-fed and raised in the pure streams and ponds of Alpers Owens River Ranch.  Alpers trout are named after the man who invented them and they are exclusive to the Eastern Sierra. They average 2 to 3 pounds but can weigh as much as 12.  Pounds.  That's getting to be a big fish.  They are prized fresh water trophies sought by anglers everywhere.  But then you'd have to be a pretty avid angler to even know they exist.

So, like, I wanna know what Tim Alpers is feeding these fish besides anabolic steroids.  Fruity Pebbles?

Once we had a brief Derby description, we got our bags in the room, a glass of wine in my lovely wife and then we flew the half mile to the Lone Pine Film History Museum.  It was 4:15PM.  They closed at 5.  Whew.

Let me start by saying, "We. Had. No. I. Dea."

Over 400 movies have been filmed in and around the Lone Pine area.  Naturally there were many old time Westerns, including TV's Hopalong Cassidy, Roy Rogers and Gene Autry.

But then, as we wandered, I began a dialogue with really no one in particular, "No kidding.  Really?  Unbelievable.  This is amazing.  Holy cow.  No fucking shit."  And so on.  And so forth.

Parts of "Tycoon", "High Sierra", "Joe Kidd", and more recently "Django Unchained" and "Iron Man" were filmed there.  Almost all of "Gunga Din".  Oh yeah, parts of a couple "Star Wars" movies too.  Story has it George Lucas was a few Ewoks shy of a full scene one day so he called the Lone Pine Elementary School.  A half dozen first graders became stars that day.  You can't see their faces, but they were there in hood and robe.  Got out of school, made $25 bucks each and got a free lunch.  And are part of a major fun trivia story forever.

The associate director of the museum overheard my lovely wife and I discussing one of the exhibits, some conversation ensued and we soon got a wonderful background glimpse into the museum.  If you're a film buff, this is a must see proposition.  And you've probably never heard of it.  The hundreds of movie posters alone are worth millions.  Costumes, cars, saddles, boots and infinite memorabilia.  It was a hoot.

Our new friend, the associate director, then gave us a map to the Alabama Hills, a fabulously weird area of unique boulders and rock outcroppings.  Oh, did I mention parts of this backdrop have been other-planetary in more than one of the Star Trek movies?

We drove the couple miles west of town to Movie Road, the main route into scenes-ville, but since the road turned to dirt and it was getting dark we ventured no further.  Besides, it was dinner time. 

The Dow Villa is on the edge of the four block main strip of the town that is Lone Pine.  We parked the car in the now full of mostly 4WD pick-ups parking lot and decided to walk to dinner.  We checked in at the front desk for recommendations, and the nice young man mentioned Seasons, Lone Pine's lone higher end restaurant.  Our new friend at the museum also recommended Seasons, so it was unanimous.  

I ordered the special, which was a perfectly grilled New York Steak.  My lovely wife, always the adventurous eater, ordered the elf.  No way, hey, that's a typo.  Who the heck serves ELF for dinner?  And where the heck would they find an edible elf, anyway?  She had ELK, based on our motel clerk's recommendation, and there's plenty of them in them thar hills.  There were even signs along the highway, Watch Out For Elk, they may be your next dinner.  Or something like that.

Actually, I recently learned, just before going to press, that wild game cannot be commercially served.  On a plate anyway.  I learned this from an uncle of my lovely wife who happens to be an avid hunter.  So she partook of a ranch raised elk, probably grown somewhere nearby. And now we know she wasn't eating epicurian road kill.

We strolled back to the old hotel after dinner, and there, in the lobby looked at all the pictures of the Duke, Clint, Bogey, Barry Manilow and others gracing the walls.  I guess they really had graced the Dow Villa's halls back in their day.   It certainly wasn't the Fairmont, or Beverly Wilshire, but it I'll bet it was an oasis to the acting elite back in the day in that inhospitable environment.

After thanking the desk clerk for his fine dinner recommendation, we turned in for the evening.  The next day we spent traversing Death Valley, visiting with family and enjoying the views and vistas as much as we dared.   With everyone shooting off in different directions, the affair split up around 3:00 in the afternoon.  Many were returning to Vegas, where they flew in, about 120 miles away.  One couple was staying in Furnace Creek, and one family, from Minnesota, was off to Disneyland.  After enduring a ridiculously active cold winter in Minnesota I would imagine a couple extra days in California were a great diversion. 

We returned through the spectacular Death Valley the same way we came, only this time we wanted to make it to Bishop, another 60 miles or so north of Lone Pine.  That way the last day of our drive would be a wee bit shorter.  And maybe allow us enough time to visit Bodie, the best preserved ghost town in the west! 

By the way, if you do cruise down Death Valley way it would be prudent to have a full tank of fuel heading in.  There is gas available, but at over $6.00 per gallon it was almost twice what it was in Lone Pine.  If you're just cruising through, bring a lunch.  Rumor has it a turkey sandwich at the Furnace Creek Inn is over $30.  For that price you can get elk in Lone Pine.

Also, if you plan on spending the night at any time on your scenic 395 byway journey, Lone Pine and Bishop are really the only towns I would consider staying in.  The others look, well, Bates Motel scary.

That's a town above.  Population 14.  Either Coleville or Walker.  Actually, Walker amazingly has a population of 782.  Coleville has a population of 495.  I mean, besides ranching and making meth, what on earth would possess an individual to live in the middle of nowhere?  And I mean, NOWHERE.

Granted, isolation is necessary for some individuals, the really eccentric ones, like me.  But I mean, you can be isolated and still live within a few miles of some form of civilization.

Economics?  My mom had no money and managed to get by in a mobile home park in San Diego.  There were a number of small mobile home parks scattered along the scenic byway, but how cheap can it be to live there if you have to drive 50 miles one way for a quart of beer?  And trust me, you'd have to drink a lot of alcohol if you lived out there.

I found the towns socially fascinating and the scenery utterly spectacular all along Highway 395, or the Eastern Sierra Scenic Byway.  The last time I drove that route was around four decades ago, when it was just a two lane highway all the way from here to there.  Most of it now is four lanes, except when you come into towns, and both directions are separated by a wide median much of the time.

By the way, the CHP, or California Highway Patrol, was very active all three days we were on the road.  It was of no concern to me, we had planned well and weren't in a rush.  Cruise control at 65 and enjoy the ride!

From here in Grass Valley we found our way to North Shore Lake Tahoe.  From the east shore of the lake we hopped on over Highway 50 East and picked up 395 South in Carson City, Nevada.  It was about a 15 mile slog through fairly heavy traffic until we got through the bedroom communities of Gardnerville and Minden before we finally broke free.  Twenty-one miles later we passed through the vegetation station and we were back in California again.

Forty some miles more, passing through the just plain why the fuck are you living here? towns of Topaz, Coleville and Walker, we arrived at Bridgeport.  We found a place off the highway by an old, historic marker commemorating an old, historic courthouse to stop and eat our brought along lunch.  Left over pizza and an apple.  Yum.

I think Bridgeport had a motel.  And a gas station.  Maybe an old country store.  I mean, these folks are miles from a gallon of milk. 

About twenty miles south of Bridgeport the road turned into four lanes.  Prior to that, it had been two lanes.  However, both directions were well equipped with well spaced passing lanes.  If you didn't want to take advantage of the many dotted line passing opportunities you wouldn't have to shadow a semi too long before a passing lane came along. 

We soon came upon Mono Lake and discovered there was a lot more water in it than there was forty years ago.  Back then there were a lot of stalagmites. Or stalactites.  You know, those weirdly shaped spires jutting up from the ground, or those death spires hanging from the ceiling.  There was actually water in the lake and relatively few whatever they are jutting up.

At the lake's visitor's center we learned an agreement with the Southern California water thieves and the Mono Lake folks had been reached.  The thieves are taking less water.  Mono Lake will never return to its original state, but through the compromise it is slowly regaining some of its luster.

Dotted all along the route were residential domiciles.  From your essential Cousin Eddie three wheel single wide decaying shanty to very fine Cartwright Bonanza ranch style homes, they were prevalent everywhere.

On the other side of the highway from Mono lake is the back door to Yosemite, Highway 120, which is usually closed in winter, which it was.  We had actually been toying with returning that way.

As you might imagine, the western views from the highway were almost magical.

As we proceeded south it began to look like a haven for beef ranchers.  Or elk ranchers.  Herds dotted the panoramic valley with the stark eastern mountains looming in the background.  We then started into the Owens River Valley, which actually looks like it, too, has recovered some from its darkest, man made water thieves drought stricken days.  By the way, if you are not familiar with SoCal's infamous water grab in the earlier part of the last century, here's a little bit of information:

"The California Water Wars were a series of conflicts between the city of Los Angeles and farmers and ranchers in the Owens Valley of Eastern California. As Los Angeles grew in the late 1800s, it started to outgrow its water supply. Fred Eaton, mayor of Los Angeles, realized that water could flow from Owens Valley to Los Angeles via an aqueduct. The aqueduct construction was overseen by William Mulholland and was finished in 1913. The water rights were acquired through political fighting and, as described by one author, "chicanery, subterfuge ... and a strategy of lies.

By the 1920s, so much water was diverted from the Owens Valley that agriculture became difficult. This led to the farmers trying to destroy the aqueduct in 1924. Los Angeles prevailed and kept the water flowing. By 1926, Owens Lake at the bottom of Owens Valley, was completely dry due to water diversion.

The water needs of Los Angeles kept growing. In 1941, Los Angeles diverted water that previously fed Mono Lake, north of Owens Valley, into the aqueduct. Mono Lake's ecosystem for migrating birds was threatened by dropping water levels. Between 1979 and 1994, David Gaines and the Mono Lake Committee engaged in litigation with Los Angeles. The litigation forced Los Angeles to stop diverting water from around Mono Lake, which has started to rise back to a level that can support its ecosystem.

In 1991, Inyo County and the city of Los Angeles signed the Inyo-Los Angeles Long Term Water Agreement, which required that groundwater pumping be managed to avoid significant impacts while providing a reliable water supply for Los Angeles. In 1997, Inyo County, Los Angeles, the Owens Valley Committee, the Sierra Club, and other concerned parties signed a Memorandum of Understanding that specified terms by which the lower Owens River would be re-watered by June 2003 as partial mitigation for damage to the Owens Valley."

Ever see the movie "Chinatown?"

Hint: It has nothing to do with China.

The further south we went in the Owens Valley the more it seemed like I had seen some of the country before.  I felt like Julie Andrews could approach from the west, which looked like the Alps, at any time, lilting a lovely tune. 

From the East, a starker and darker mountain scene, I felt like Rory Calhoun or a band of Apaches could swoop on in on horseback at any time.  Then it would be time to circle the car.  Or turn the car in circles. Whichever would have been appropriate.  When we got into the film museum I discovered why parts of the journey seemed so deja vu.  I had sub-consciously seen the background scenes we were driving past a hundred times.  Or more.

Death Valley, too, was truly remarkable.  There were incredible vistas from every foot of the drive in on Hwy 136.   I would like to have spent another day or two in the area, but, alas, time prevailed.  At least the main event, the reason we all assembled from all over the country, was accomplished with humor and grace.  Much like the man we were commemorating.

We got into Bishop about dusk, or 6:00 PM, whichever is greater.  There were infinitely more motels in Bishop then there were in Lone Pine.  OK, at least five more.  We ended up staying at the Best Western Bishop Lodge.  Both motels we stayed in, by the way, were comfortable, CLEAN establishments.

The town of Bishop is on the back side of Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks.  As a matter of fact, Highway 168 heading west out of Bishop is the only eastern approach available by car towards the park.  Highway 168 was also the road our dinner destination lay on, the Bishop Burger Barn.

Referred to the place by our ever loving daughter, a burger queen, we found the ambiance to be, well, downright funky.  Totally our kind of place.

The drive up and walk up window are the same and all seating is outdoors.  It made for a coolish evening dining experience, but we brought out a blanket from the car which helped immensely.  The burger was great, as were the onion rings and fries.  Highly recommend it if you're passing through.  And like burgers.

The drive out was a little disconcerting until we actually got there.  The Burger Barn is a couple miles off Hwy 395, the beaten track.  I thought most all the commercial whatever establishments would have been on or close to the main drag.  We made a right at the light per the desk clerk's instructions and headed out into the darkness, away from the bright lights of downtown.  I was beginning to think the kinda weird young desk clerk with no future in Bishop was leading us out into the wilderness where a crony would steal our hub caps.  Yeah, a mail order hub cap business maybe could fly in Bishop.  Other than that you're ranching or making meth.  Or checking people in at midnight. 

Bishop holds the formidable distinction of being "The Mule Capital of the World" and actually holds an annual week long festival celebrating pack mules.  Other than that, the main draw of Bishop, population 3,879, has to be for the outdoorsy experience type people.  There are a lot of motels for a town that otherwise really doesn't have much of a draw itself.  Besides fishing, and mules, apparently there are a lot of rock climbers in the area too.  Or at least that inhabit the Burger Barn.  The guy in front of us ordering was a climber.  Or so he was saying.  The two guys at the table next to us were climbers too.  Or so they were saying.  And then I read some promo literature when we got back to the motel.  It's a climber's mecca.

The next day we hit the road after a fairly decent motel breakfast.  You know, waffles, sausages, bacon, scrambled eggs, muffins, fruit, juice, all that.  I had coffee.  I can't eat breakfast.  I'm still digesting dinner.

The drive north was just as spectacular as the drive south, only the Sierras were on the left instead of the right.  And Mono Lake was on the right instead of the left.  Stuff like that.  Just north of Mono Lake, on the east side of the highway, lies Bodie, an original gold mining "ghost" town from the late 1800's, frozen in time.

The road to Bodie can also be closed in winter, but we were happy to find it was open.  No snow.  We passed the open gate on a finely paved road and imagined how it would have been to traverse the rough and rocky terrain on a horse, or stagecoach.  We also tried to imagine what the hell William Bodie was doing in the MIDDLE OF FUCKING NO WHERE to eventually discover gold and draw ten thousand more seekers to no where land.  And I mean NO WHERE.  There's not even a lamp post.  Or an elevator.

Ten miles in we gave up the ghost, so to speak.  The road turned to dirt the last three miles.  We were in our touring car, which does not do dirt.  Not three miles of it.  That's my car, it was at home.  So, keep this in mind.  If you want to go see Bodie do it in your truck.  Or a nice rental car that you feel comfortable destroying.

We tucked our head between our tail and headed home.  A continued nice drive through our lovely back yard high mountain terrain, past Lake Tahoe and back to reality.  Which is nice to leave every once in a while.

If you live out here in California or Nevada, The Eastern Sierra Scenic Byway is a drive you really don't want to miss.  I was totally unaware.  It is amazing. It is inspiring.

If you're an angler there's another reason to go.  You need an Alpers Trout above your mantle.

If you're a film buff you need to go.  You need to visit the Lone Pine Film Museum and the Alabama Hills.  You'll appreciate it more if you're over fifty, by the way.  Sixty even more.  The Hopalong Cassidy exhibit is epic.  Anyone under thirty ever hear of ol' Hoppy?

If you simply love unbelievably glorious, majestic scenery, it's a fabulous jaunt and contains all the elements for an excellent road trip.  If you're on a budget, campgrounds abound.

My cousin could not have chosen a more magnificent location for his send off, and the adventurous journey to and fro was an unexpected, exemplary treat.  Thanks for the gift Cuz, who knows if we ever would have made that drive without your final wish.  Happy trails, we'll catch up with ya 'round the next bend.